3. Source referencing

It is agreed that by the end of their studies at the latest, students should demonstrate an ability to create an independent academic text, the formal requisites of which ordinarily include referencing any sources used. But where and when should they learn that? This question is often asked by the students whose plagiarism was detected – they argue that they committed the offence precisely because they were never taught how to reference properly. Most Czech universities now dedicate specialised courses to practise this skill, or they incorporate such courses into compulsory university-wide foundation courses. However, in this chapter we assume that one course does not suffice to truly teach this skill, and it is equally illusory to assume that students will be equipped with it from their secondary school studies. On the contrary, it is important that they practise this skill continuously, throughout their entire studies, including in their core courses. This places additional demands on teachers who, apart from their specialist competences, must also have an insight into the logic of student writing and time to reflect upon these ‘formal components’ of student work. What problems does a teacher encounter most frequently in final theses and assignments, and how can these be resolved in the minimum time with the best possible outcomes?

Plagiarism does not occur by accident

Students are often worried that they will commit plagiarism by accident. They believe that an antiplagiarism check (whether carried out by antiplagiarism software or a teacher) is a random generator of sanctions which may affect anyone – after all, everyone overlooks something every now and then, or does not manage to add a citation while making final edits and feeling stressed. In reality, the chances that a serious form of plagiarism will result accidentally are very small to zero.2 The role of the teacher, therefore, is not only to strengthen the fear of students who might consider cheating intentionally, but also to dispel the worries of students who prepare their work honestly. The fear of unintentional plagiarism might be explained by the fact that it often conflates the understanding of the purpose of referencing and the mastering of its technical execution. It is, therefore, key that students not only learn the correct format of referencing (that is, whether to cite in footnotes or in brackets, what styles are available, that it is necessary to cite consistently, and what tools can provide technical assistance), but crucially that they understand the purpose.

The purpose and format of references

It is possible to understand referencing as a form of language through which the author communicates with the reader. With the help of this language, the author explains what helped him or her formulate which idea, which sources he or she relied on, thereby also crediting and giving professional acknowledgement to the cited author. But it is not just about the author of the original idea; the reader also has rights. Firstly, the reader has the right to check at any time whether the author’s claims are correct. He or she can check the calculations, replicate an experiment or verify that the author of the text has correctly adopted an idea of a different author (such as that it has not been misrepresented). The reader may also be interested in the wider context of the cited idea, in additional information, or he or she may even be so intrigued by the author’s ‘promotion’ of the cited work that he or she would like to read the entire work. The author of the text is obliged to provide clear information that will enable the fulfilment of such rights. No more, no less.

The birth certificate number of the publication

In order to be able to find the cited source, the reader must be provided with unambiguous information, that is the publication’s ‘birth certificate number’ which identifies it unmistakably. For books, that information consists of the author, title, place and year of publication; for articles, it is the author, title of the article, title of the journal, volume and year, number (if it exists), and page range. Other details may also be added, such as the ISBN, ISSN, DOI, publisher, edition etc., with which we assist the reader further and facilitate the identification or even finding of the source. It is appropriate that students try to create references using concrete examples – find the necessary information in a book that they are holding, in a journal article that they found through an internet search tool, or to create a ‘reference’ for an image circulated on social media. They will also better understand the purpose of compulsory details in referencing if they are asked to find a publication using a bibliography entry, and they will realise how difficult it is when there are insufficient details.

The referencing style is determined by identifying for whom the text is written

The collection of formal rules for acknowledging individual items is called a referencing style. The style determines how citations (directing the reader to the source within the text) and bibliography entries (index of all sources used in citations in their full wording, usually at the end of the text) should look. The specific referencing style is always determined by identifying for whom the text is written – the publisher or the editors in the case of academic publications, the university in the case of final theses, and the teacher in the case of seminar papers.

The plurality of referencing styles reflects the conventions for different disciplines, customs of different publishing houses or universities, historical developments, or cultural norms. In order to master the principles of referencing, it is useful for students to compare different referencing styles using practical examples – this will help them understand that the format may differ significantly, but the content always remains the same.

Nevertheless, the style of referencing must stay consistent throughout each text. Students often fail to reference consistently not only due to lack of attention but also due to hyper-correctness. Many online publications now contain information on how they wish to be referenced, and students copy these references into their work in good faith. It is necessary to explain to students that this information is binding in terms of its content (that is who should be stated as the first author, which of the titles is considered to be the name of the publication, etc.), but its format may (and even must) be adapted to the referencing style that they are using in their work.

Practical help

At the start of their academic writing, students often find manuals very helpful for observing referencing styles and recording unusual entries. It is appropriate, therefore, to provide them e.g., with a manual of a prestigious journal in the given field, or with the university’s house style for referencing, if it exist. Alternatively, they can be asked to look up the style themselves. If possible within the course, it is also desirable to encourage them to try to cite and create a reference for sources that are not typical (online articles without an author or date of publication; specialist literature issued by an institution; sources in foreign languages; oral sources) – this will help them not only to learn how to use the manual, but also to think about the logic of creating the reference.

The so-called referencing management software (also ‘citation software’ or ‘referencing manager’) is a useful technical tool for referencing. This software allows users to save and manage their bibliography entries (such as to import them from databases and library catalogues, or to create their own entries) and then to automatically insert them into the text. The particular advantage of such tools is that they maintain a consistent referencing style throughout the text that can easily be changed; for example, if the student wishes to rework the text into an academic article and the publisher requires a different style than the university. However, referencing management software cannot replace the understanding of what purpose citations serve and how they should be used. It is, therefore, better suited for more advanced users; students starting academic writing should first learn to cite ‘manually’. Also, it is important to realise that a citation created by software might not be correct if it derives from incorrect data. Accordingly, it is always necessary to check the citations and bibliography entries generated.

The market for referencing management software is currently very diverse and offers a wide range of paid as well as free options. The majority of programmes also offer various additional functionalities apart from the basic management of bibliography entries (notes management, saving of files, elements of social network) – when selecting, it is, therefore, necessary to carefully consider what product will be most suitable for the given purposes. A teacher can help students by explaining to them which referencing managers are most often used in their field, informing them for which software the university owns a licence or whether it even allows students to access the software tools after graduation. It is also appropriate to strive for compatibility within a workplace of student teams – some software tools allow teams to work on common projects, share bibliographies, etc.

Referencing a database is not required

Students often lack an understanding of the ‘obligations’ to readers and as a result, they rather cite ‘hyper-correctly’. They state extensive hyperlinks leading to a database in which an article is stored, or they cite other repositories such as JSTOR or Google Books. However, they do not need to make the reader’s way to finding the text source this easy. It is necessary to explain to them that as long as they clearly identify the source (see above) they do not have an obligation to further facilitate the reader’s way to it – the reader himself or herself should be able to find the article and procure it (and perhaps even pay for the access to the database, journey to a library abroad, etc.).

Internet versus paper sources

Understanding the logic of referencing will help eliminate another common mistake – perceiving ‘internet sources’ as a separate genre of academic publications. Students should be carefully reminded that internet is just a ‘carrier’. It is the same as referencing ‘paper sources’ in the bibliography. The decision as to what type of source it is and how we will treat it should be made according to the content criteria. The fact that e.g., an academic article is only published online does not free the student of the obligation to identify it in the reference as clearly as if it was published ‘on paper’ – if possible, he or she should state its author, title of the article, publication platform, date of publication and, in this case, also an accurate website link. An additional compulsory detail when it comes to online publications is the date of access – by including it, the student fulfils his or her obligation to the reader to clearly identify the source, but at the same time the student is protected against a situation where the internet link is not available after that date, or its content changes.

What can I reference?

This is a common question that supervisors of an assignment or final theses encounter. Students are often unsure about the rules that govern what they can include among their sources. The easiest rule is: whatever you held ‘in your hands’, and for online sources it can be adapted: whatever you had open on your screen. This rule should prevent students from making a common mistake caused by ignorance: while researching literature, students find a number of sources which they are unable to access ‘physically’, for example because they are protected by a paywall and students cannot access the database, or because the book is not available in the Czech Republic. Students would like to refer to these sources because they are worried that by excluding them, they will have not covered the topic sufficiently. It is necessary to explain to the students that, on the contrary, by referencing a source that they have not ‘read’, they would commit a serious transgression since only sources that the author has worked with personally may be referenced in the work. It is equally unacceptable to copy references from someone else’s bibliography if the student has not actively accessed the sources.

On the other hand, the rule of the hands (screen) does not mean that the student must read the cited books from the beginning to the end. It is entirely legitimate to cite just from those segments that the student found relevant when reading, and that he or she is using for his or her topic. However, if the student is commenting on the whole book in the work, he or she should be familiar with all of it. A complicated question arises from the possibility of citing sources that are not available in their entirety – for example, Google Books protects the copyright of certain books by leaving some pages blank. It is up to the author’s judgement, perhaps after consultation with a supervisor if necessary. If the available passage is relevant and appropriate to the topic of the work, it is possible to cite the source as if we held the physical book in our hands.

Primary and secondary citation

The rule of the hands (screen) can also be used when students wish to cite the idea of someone whose work they did not read directly, but they know indirectly. If the idea is crucial for the work, that is, for example, the main argumentation is dependent on it, the teacher should remind the student of the necessity to find the primary source directly. If that is not possible, or the idea is not crucial for the work, it is possible to utilise a socalled secondary citation. In a secondary citation, the student refers to the source of the original idea but he or she only references a publication where it was actually found. In the reference, this fact is communicated to the reader by using the expression ‘as cited in’.

Only sources that the author had direct access to may be referenced.

Share uncertainties with a supervisor or in footnotes

The referencing system guidance can never cover everything that the author needs to communicate to the reader. Remind the students that if they are unsure about how to reference something or about the form of the citation, they can always consult academic literature, websites helping with academic writing, the supervisor or teacher. As a last resort, they can use footnotes for direct communication with the reader, in which they expressly state their uncertainty or additional information. In this way, they can resolve problems such as accessing a work from an archive that they did not visit because they could not travel (but they asked someone who could photograph the materials), referring to information from oral lectures (which, in most cases, should not be used) or using a translator for adapting sources in a language that the author does not have a command of – without additional information, all of these cases could be considered as cheating.

Bibliography is not a list of research literature

A serious mistake that students make, due to ignorance or even in good faith, is confusing the bibliography list with a list of research literature. They believe that they should include all relevant literature which deals with their topic, and they consider bibliography as ‘recommendations for further reading’ to readers. Sometimes they justify including items that they did not refer to in the text to avoid the criticism of an opponent, who might object that they have not considered a certain work. It is necessary to emphasise that a bibliography should only include literature which was referenced from the text. The final bibliography must always be a list of references for all citations to sources used in the text – a precise mirror list. Every source appearing as a citation in the text must be traceable back to the bibliography, and every entry in the bibliography must have at least one citation in the text.

  1. Kozmanová, I. Kam až sahá akademická integrita? Nizozemské přemýšlení o dosahu a dělitelnosti. Dějiny a současnost, 2019, 8, 13–16.